The Literature of Discovery and Exploration
Juan Bruce-Novoa and Carla Mulford
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490?-1556?)
A Gentleman of Elvas (fl. 1537-1557)
René Goulaine de Laudonnière (fl. 1562-1582)
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574)
Fray Marcos de Niza (1495?-1542?)
Pedro de Casteñeda (1510?-1570?)
Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá (1555-1620)
Samuel de Champlain (1570?-1635)
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students' lack of general historical knowledge is compounded by the
usual disinformation they learn in U.S. history as taught in this country.
To address this problem, I give the students a list of historical facts
as they probably have learned them (i.e., dates of Jamestown, Plymouth,
etc.), and we discuss this traditional way of teaching U.S. history. I
sometimes ask them to draw a map representing U.S. history in movement.
Then I give them a second list with the Spanish and French settlements
included and discuss how this new context changes the way we conceive of
U.S. history. Next I take time to explain the European backgrounds of the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in which Spain, the first national state,
was a dominant power and England a marginal and even second-rate power.
Third, I emphasize the economic reality of colonization. Students must
understand that none of the Europeans viewed the Native Americans as equals.
The destruction of the Acoma people is just the start of a long U.S. tradition
of subjugating conquered peoples and should not be read as a Spanish aberration.
The Cabeza de Vaca experience is unique in that it prefigures not only
captivity literature but also migrant literature of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries: he and his comrades had to assimilate and acculturate
to survive, working at whatever job they could get among a majority culture
that did not necessarily need or want them around.
Students often ask why these texts are important and how they relate
to more conventional U.S. literature. You might suggest that they entertain
a change in their traditional concept of the U.S. as an English-based country,
considering the paradigm of a land that from the start was in contention
by forces of several language groups and distinct origins. Students should
be taught that this situation is still the same, in spite of the assumption
that English won out. The forces present in this period are still contending
for a place in U.S. territory. Perhaps the oldest tradition in the U.S.
is the struggle among different groups for the recognition of the right
to participate fully in making the future of this land.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The headnotes specify two major themes: the newness of the experience
and the need to relate it in European terms. Columbus initiated the dialogue
between American reality and the European codes of signification.
Another theme would be the strategies utilized to convince powerful
readers of the benefits of the New World. Again, Columbus marks the beginning.
These authors are constantly selling the unknown to potential investors
and visitors. Here begins the tradition of hawking new property developments
beyond the urban blight of the reader's familiar surroundings.
Cabeza de Vaca introduces the familiar theme of wandering the back roads
of the country--a sixteenth-century Kerouac. It is the theme of finding
oneself through the difficult pilgrimage into the wilderness--a Carlos
Castaneda avant la lettre. Cabeza de Vaca is transformed through
suffering, perseverance, and the ability to acculturate.
The Laudonnière and Avilés texts introduce inter-European
rivalries as a major theme of American culture. Competition over territory
resulted in violent encounters. The encounters with the Native American
population were equally violent, introducing the theme of the subjugation
of the native peoples, who would rather retain their own way of life. The
arrogant assumption that one's own system is naturally superior to the
native's way is again an indisputable characteristic of U.S. history.
Another theme is the sincerity of religious motivation, in spite of
the contradicting evidence of economic ambitions. This conflict between
the philanthropic ideals and the exploitative motivation still underlies
U.S. foreign policy.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
First, the form of much of this material is the epistolary chronicle:
a subjective report on the events without the limitations of supposedly
objective historical science. It is a personal account like a memoir, but
it is also a letter to a powerful reader, not the general public. It has
no literary pretensions, but the circumstances demanded rhetorical skill.
Second, the period is one of transition from the Middle Ages to the
Renaissance, so there will be mixtures of characteristics from the two,
the Medieval chronicle alongside the Renaissance epic of Villagrá.
Style is also hybrid. While most of these authors were educated well
above the average commoner of the period, most of them were not trained
in letters. Thus their writing is mostly unpretentious and direct. Again,
Villagrá is an exception.
Most of these texts record personal experiences in the New World and
thus have a ring of realism and direct contact with the earth and people.
The audience then was specifically the powerful leaders. One can compare
U.S. military reports on Vietnam or propaganda films on WWII like Victory
at Sea to get a sense of nationalistic justification.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There are plenty of writers in this section to compare and contrast.
I would also recommend comparisons with Virginia and New England writers
to get a sense of the newness encountered, the use of divine right to justify
the project, and the determination to hold and civilize what is seen as
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Ask students to review what they learned about this period in previous
classes: who, what, where, when, why. Have them formulate a brief summary
of the period according to this training. Have them compare it to the list
of places and events you gave them at first and then to consider what the
second list implies.
2. General assignments: Write about how this information changes their
view of U.S. history. Write on the imagery used by the authors to characterize
the New World.
3. Consider the role of violence in the colonization of the Americas.
Specific possibilities: On Cabeza de Vaca: Compare his experience with
Robinson Crusoe's. On Villagrá: Compare his version with the Native
American one in the anthology selections.
See headnotes for references.